Tuesday 22 December 2009

Solstice dreaming

Lie still, lie still while the stiff bone-tiredness spends itself in sleep,
while the snow floats by, the solstice passes and a new space opens,
 slippy sugar frosting
over a muffled, breathy hole in time.
Drop down, drop down and dream towards the coming year.

Thursday 17 December 2009

Inspired by...

these  (currently on show in a fabulous exhibition at the British Library).

He captured something subtle, dreamy and essential, I think, that modern photographic technology has got us nowhere closer to. 

Tuesday 15 December 2009


So tired recently. Work is so tedious and relentless and endless, and, when I’m this tired, so close to overwhelming. Lately I can scarcely muster the energy to get myself home at the end of the day and get myself into bed when I get there, and then the effort of doing so leaves me too tense to sleep. I’ve read the first two books I want to review for the Women Unbound challenge (I still read, however tired I am, because it keeps me from falling asleep on the bus-ride to and from work), and not been able to summon even a few sentences about them - unsurprising, when I’m so tired I’ve sometimes found myself unable in conversation to string a coherent sentence together. I’ve been cancelling almost all social engagements. Sometimes this is a misplaced impulse and it’s only company and exchange and focusing on others that would give me more energy, but this time I think it was right - when I’m meditating most days, as I have been again in recent months, I’m less cut off from my feelings and know better what I need.

After this has gone on for a few weeks, I start thinking about giving up on the blog. If I can’t do this regularly, if I don’t practice enough to feel the words expand and flow, what, I find myself thinking, just what is the point? Why bother to go back to it at all? I’ve returned repeatedly to what I found myself writing recently about my Dad. Sometimes you idly put into words a knowledge so taken for granted that you’ve never bothered to articulate it, and it lingers and resonates and you realise you’ve verbalised something very important that you need to keep before you all the time.

I keep returning to the imagined figure of a father who sometimes painted pictures or sometimes scribbled things down in a notebook and how utterly different this person would have been from the father I knew. It wouldn’t have mattered if he did these things often or rarely, impressively well or not really very well at all. If he’d done them at all, of course I can’t be sure that he would have been a different person inside, but he certainly would have seemed to me a different person. I never encountered his inner voice, and neither as far as I know, by the time I knew him, did anyone else. I have no idea if he still had one, or if his head was a silent, echoing place with no stream of thought, the only impetus for words and actions a long-established, blindly followed routine. I suspect there must have been some words in there, at least from time to time. But as far as I was concerned there might as well not have been. His only reality for me was the one painted by my mother’s many, many words on the subject of his inadequacy and the unhappiness and disappointment it caused her.

This is so awful. This is what was worst about his life. Not his lack of friends. Not the fact that he worked at boring, junior jobs far below his ability. Not the unhappiness of his marriage or his lack of engagement as a father. Not the way he gave up the creative pursuits, the political activism, all the things he once did outside work. Not even his habitual grumpy silence, occasionally interrupted by a small outburst of not very convincing belligerence. These are all sad. But even sadder that I never heard a word from that inner voice. This is what shows me the extent to which he’d given up.

I know now, have long known - though I was middle-aged before it hit me – how much I resemble him. I keenly recognise the strain of weakness, the impulse to warmth and kindness often hidden, overwhelmed by apathy, the sinning by omission which can harm others (as his silence harmed me) just as much as active and intentional cruelty. These are the aspects of my character I struggle against. I know I’m lucky that life has brought me cultural, political and spiritual experiences and interests that go deep and sustain me in something more than apathy, however pointless the daily round is feeling just now. Sometimes I feel like I’m losing the battle – well, don’t we all sometimes feel like we’re losing whatever our deepest personal battle happens to be? But mostly, I’m fortunate enough to be able to pinpoint what will make the difference: I must not let my inner voice go silent. Writing and taking photos really is a way to save my own life. It’s not about quality, or audience, or even regularity. As long as I just do it, here or elsewhere, when I can, that is enough to stop me dying inside. Quite a thought.

Friday 11 December 2009


I know how he feels.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

My haiku tree

outside my front door
winter surprises again
with a froth of lace

Monday 7 December 2009

Saturday 5 December 2009

Women Unbound

The Women Unbound blog challenge only came to my attention at the end of November, so I thought at first that I was too late. But the challenge turns out to be to read and review a number of books about women's lives by the end of November 2010, not all within the month of November 2009! So I think I can manage that. In fact I hope to manage the broadest challenge option of reading and reviewing eight books, including at least three non-fiction.

The first book I'm reading for this is a novel, Clara by Janice Galloway.

But the challenge begins with a meme
. It's a long time since anyone has asked me these questions, but they're certainly not out of date.  I haven't yet read anyone else's answers, which I look forward to doing later, because I wanted mine to be spontaneuos and heartfelt, not provoked or influenced by the emphases of others.

1. What does feminism mean to you? Does it have to do with the work sphere? The social sphere? How you dress? How you act?

Feminism means to me the belief in women's right to agency. In the right of women, just like men (and although, just like men, we will often of course be the objects of other people's love, desire, rage, distaste, indifference, more and less successful attempts to control) to be the agents of our own lives and identitities.

It has to do with the work sphere, the social sphere, with every sphere of life.

It's not to do with how I dress, but with having a choice about how I dress.

It's not to do with how I act, but with the right to act.

2. Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?

I've considered myself a feminist for thirty years and more. It's a basic - perhaps the most basic - tenet of my personal belief system, of the way I define myself. I was young and I was there in the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1970s. I was passionately part of it, tossed and torn and thrilled and damaged by its intellectual and social challenges. It was all tied up with who I grew up to be. My perspectives and conclusions evolved and moved on somewhat. I learned slowly and with difficulty to distinguish between the pain and rage that was caused by social structures and the pain and rage that came from my own family, my own psyche, between the responsibility of individual women and men and the reward and blame they did not deserve. But although the 1970s came and went, although by now I've lived long enough to taste the impermanence of everything, I can't imagine ever being less of a feminist.

3. What do you consider the biggest obstacle women face in the world today? Has that obstacle changed over time, or does it basically remain the same?

The biggest obstacle we face is the weight of history. Our age of terrifying flux, of globalisation, individualisation, the fragmentation of family, society and nations, which has brought so much that frightens and dismays me, has also been the age of unprecedented opportunities for individual change and emancipation. And so women's long-term struggles for legal and economic independence have finally met with some success, at least for the most privileged women in the richest societies. But the weight of history, the weight of all the ages, of shared, entrenched cultural assumptions, of our own subconscious, our own  neurones, twisted and formed in the first months and years of life by the touch and the gaze of our mothers, whose own neurones, twisted and formed in the first months and years of their lives... the weight of all this is so great, so resilient. As so much implodes around us, people, people's minds, remain slow to change. As so much implodes around us, some things, as always happens in turbulent, violent times, take a frightening turn for the worse, like the terrible new waves (probably not unprecedented, but unprecedented in recent lifetimes) of sexual violence against women as a weapon of war.  We're not unbound yet, and I don't think we will be in my lifetime.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

My belief, as a feminist, in the right to be myself, so that, as a buddhist, I can seek freedom by ceasing to fixate so rigidly on that self: this is the conundrum at the heart of my consciousness. It's a privilege, of course, to have the time and opportunity to sit with this conundrum. And even then, it's only the very tiny, tentative beginning of a path to freedom. 

Yup. Yikes

Tuesday 1 December 2009

There is a crack in everything

Taking photographs every day, as my NaBloPoMo project, on my normal trajectories to and from work and so on, mostly not going anywhere special, has had a lot to do, I think, with looking for the cracks and looking through them. Here are my November daily photos all together. An oddish array of images: without the camera, I doubt I'd have remembered, or even noticed, most of them.

Monday 30 November 2009


...and, whoosh, in the blink of an eye November was gone.

Sunday 29 November 2009

Saturday 28 November 2009

Friday 27 November 2009

Thursday 26 November 2009


I read those posts every year on the blogs of American friends about what they're thankful for, and I love them and am heartened by them. But it doesn't come easily to me to do the same. Partly, I suppose, it's because I didn't grow up with this festival and the accompanying rituals - and I rather wish I had: what you're grateful for is a lovely thing to pause and focus on. Partly, I fear, a temperamental tendency to negativity and, um, moaning stands between me and voluntary engagement in this exercise - oh dear! So, anyway, I tend not to make these annual lists, although I enjoy reading other people's.

However, it so happens that I spent a happy half hour on the morning of this Thanksgiving Day feeling full of gratitude, so it seems appropriate to record this.  I was on the bus, reading Miss Mackenzie by Anthony Trollope, recommended by my favourite book reviewer, Litlove.  I sat there smiling more and more broadly and then giggling.  I could feel my toes curling up with happy gratification and delicious hilarity. Although it made me giggle, it is not a silly book. It is full of searing wit and a quite merciless sense of the ridiculous, though never cruel or misanthropic. It is beautifully written in a peerlessly sustained tone of ironic amusement which is never so distancing that you cease to vividly picture the scene or to care for the characters and to catch your breath, so powerful is the mixture of laughter and sorrow.

I laughed and laughed and felt sorry that I hadn't laughed much recently, dauntingly busy yet again at work, and glad that my sense of humour was intact (is there anything more resilient than humour?). And I thought: where would I be without books? Where would I have been for as long as I can remember? Somewhere an awful lot bleaker. Even if these days I don't always look first for escape into my head, but for greater acceptance of being right where I am, there will always be a place for taking a break. I'm grateful now and always for the sweet change of mood and voyage into imagination, for the stimulation and renewal that is a gift from someone never met, perhaps long dead.

Look behind you

Wednesday 25 November 2009

The graffiti of irony

resit verb
/ˌriːˈsɪt/ v [T] (resitting, resat, resat) mainly UK to take an examination again
If you fail these exams, you can resit them next year.
resit noun
/ˈriː.sɪt/ n [C]
She's got to do resits in French and German.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Monday 23 November 2009

Sunday 22 November 2009

Saturday 21 November 2009

White Spotted Jellyfish

Inspired by Leslee to drop in on the most photogenic inhabitants of my local aquarium
The museum website also has a video of these: enchantingly watchable. The still image reminds me a little of this, which I saw last week in a wonderful exhibition at the British Library.

Friday 20 November 2009

Bear in the Strand

( too early in the morning - only the bear is smiling )

Thursday 19 November 2009

Not giving up

It's been a nice thing taking a photo each of these past nearly 20 days. To tell the truth, I thought I'd probably 'cheat' a bit and post one I already had on occasional days when there wasn't time or I saw nothing of interest. I haven't done that at all because the whole point, it turns out, is the doing it - the practice, every day, however rushed, whatever my mood, of stepping outside myself and looking around.

On work days, often my only opportunity to take a photo is on the way to the office in the morning - too busy to take a lunch break and it's dark long before I leave in the evening. Welcoming, yes actually welcoming a traffic jam because the bus stands still and I can shoot through the window (ahem, spot the ones taken through grubby glass!). Looking for something new or a new angle on the same unvarying route I walk most days, the last couple of miles into the city centre, so I get some exercise. It sets a whole new tenor for the day and I love it. 

I think of my father, who in his youth painted (flowers and birds, mostly), played the clarinet in a band and crafted leather bags. And who knows what else. When I had a travel piece published, many years after he died, my mother said: 'Oh, that's like your father. He wrote stuff about his town for the local paper and the tourist office'. I'd had no idea he wrote anything. By the time I knew him, he'd given it all up. So sadly symbolic of how he gave up on himself. I didn't really know him well. He was scarcely there. Exercising our creativity, in however tiny a way, is a way of staying alive inside.

With coffee cup

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Monday 16 November 2009

Sunday 15 November 2009

Saturday 14 November 2009

Friday 13 November 2009

Thursday 12 November 2009

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Monday 9 November 2009

Sunday 8 November 2009

Saturday 7 November 2009

Friday 6 November 2009

So what is left?

In their book, Individualization, translated from German by Patrick Camiller, sociologists Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim write radically and persuasively about the fragmentation in our times of nations, societies and families, and ask:

" So, what is left?  ...we would like to indicate at least the possibility of a different kind of integration and to put it forward for discussion. To summarize our basic idea: if highly individualized societies can be bound together at all, it is only, first, through a clear understanding of precisely this situation and, second, if people can be successfully mobilized and motivated for the challenges present at the centre of their lives (unemployment, destruction of nature, etc). Where the old sociality is 'evaporating', society must be reinvented.  Integration therefore becomes possible if no attempt is made to arrest and push back the breakout of individuals. It can happen if we make conscious use of this situation and try to forge new, politically open, creative forms of bond and alliance. The questions of whether we still have the strength, the imagination - and the time - for this 'invention of the political' is, to be sure, a matter of life and death. "

I guess I do believe, in a small way, but fiercely, that the links forged across distance and difference and the reflective self expression fostered by the Internet, online communities and blogging are potentially part of this reinvention.


Thursday 5 November 2009

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Monday 2 November 2009

Sunday 1 November 2009

Into November

November being when bloggers set themselves some sort of challenge, and since the many months of this year when I took no photos led to a depressingly reduced 'hit rate' of half-way decent pictures, I thought I'd try to take and post a photo every day this month.

What creates pain?

Injury, assault, deformity, weakness, genetic inheritance, degeneration, inflamation, viruses, cancer... of course. But also complex, less definable interactions of body, soul and environment. Famously, x-rays may show you two spines similarly marked by wear and tear - one patient has disabling back pain, the other none. While doctors can do a lot to fix the definable, for the less easily definable we need healers, shamans, of whom there are fewer. Not that fewer are born in our times, I suppose, but the speed and chaos of the way we live now scarcely encourage them to embrace and develop the faculty. Ingrid Bacci is one who has. Here she gives a particularly clear and vivid summary of her approach and experience. 

" A teenage girl was brought to me for chronic headaches that had resisted all treatment for a year. The headaches were so severe and constant that the girl had to be home-schooled. In just a few sessions that combined bodywork and conversation, her headaches disappeared. Why? On the physical level, her headaches were caused by severe tension in the shoulders and neck. The tension in the shoulders and neck, in turn, was an expression of the girl's inner conflict. She was a person of high intelligence and natural sense of independence whose need for self-expression conflicted with the strong deferential patterns of her ethnic background. Her culture taught her to respect her elders and bow to authority, while her educational upbringing was teaching her to speak up and think for herself. Our sessions gave her the opportunity to recognize and address this conflict, rather than just acting it out unconsciously by tensing up. To heal, she needed both physical release work through hands-on healing and sensitive dialogue and problem-solving around the mixed messages she was receiving in her home and school environments. If she had received just one of these, her relief would have been temporary at best.

A woman with chronic pelvic pain came to see me after removal of a cyst in one of her ovaries failed to resolve the problem. The ultimate cause of the pain wasn't her cyst. It was chronic tension in the muscles of her pelvic area. In fact, this tension was probably the cause of the cyst. Why? Tension maintained in a given area of the body over a long period of time will tend to reduce blood flow and nerve conduction in that area and contribute to congestion or inflammation in nearby organs. This woman had held tension in her pelvic area since childhood. Was it any wonder that her ovaries suffered? To find a deeper resolution to her problems, and to help her avoid further gynecological problems, we had to both relieve the tension through manual therapy and help her identify and release the emotional triggers for that tension. In this client's case, the emotional triggers were related to childhood abuse. To fully release her physical tension, this client had to recognize, process and release the emotions of anger and hurt that she held in her pelvis. She had to start the process of living in her body in a different way, with more love and tenderness toward herself."

Friday 30 October 2009

More about art

" Lewis Hine's 1905 photograph 'Young Russian Jewess at Ellis Island'. For a photographer known for his social documentary work, it's a strange image, with its brooding, intense face and its indistinct, soft-focus background. Ellis Island, which in most photographs appears overrun by people, is empty and still here. The only indication of place is the blurry bars of the fenced walkways through which lines of people were processed in the Great Hall. This image of such a private and solitary moment in the packed bustle of Ellis Island is a document of an anomaly in the place and in the work of Hine. It's not about social conditions. It's about the soul.  A woman with a scarf or shawl pushed back, just far enough to show her dark hair, parted in the middle and not recently washed, looks at something past the camera, neither intimidated nor engaged by it. Only her cloth coat with its assymetrical closure places her as being from the far eastern fringes of Europe.  Up close she is nearly beautiful, young and somehow tender, but from further away or with a smaller or darker reproduction, you can see the skull in the set face of this emigrant, as though through hunger, exhaustion, fear, she is close to other borders than national ones. Above her shadowed eye sockets, her forehead gleams as white as the sky behind her. It's as though we can see through it to the same distant pallor that is the sky, or as though both are only absences on the photographic paper. "

Another piece of writing that impresses and thrills me: it's a couple of years since I read Rebecca Solnit's book and this description came vividly and almost entire into my mind as I continued to think about how to write about art.

This is very different from Drusilla Modjeska's piece. There is no interweaving of the writer's immediate response with an overt political viewpoint, although the image is briefly but tellingly contextualised within Lewis Hine's body of work and within the seminal history of Ellis Island. It's just one extract from a brief, dense book where the photo is evoked as part of a story of the writer's own life, identity and imaginings. But this short passage also stands well on its own.

What we get is a deep, dreamy, but pointed entering into the photo, a 'looking back at her' - powerful and specific, though not for a moment overwhelming of the original image. And it's beautiful writing: strong, unexpected simile and a small, satisfying, complete-in-itself narrative arc.

While pondering these things lately, I came across a piece on critical writing by JC Hallman, excerpted from his new book, The Story about the StoryIt's the lead item in the latest issue of the estimable Quarterly Conversation, whose editorial takes up the theme.  'Creative criticism' is what they're advocating, 'work that reads the self as closely as it reads the examined text and that is every bit as creative as it is critical'. Not just work that 'reads the text', I would contend: writing about any kind of art is surely at its best when it's 'telling a good story...  using the language of metaphor and simile that art itself uses... [occupying] the no-man's land between creative writing and criticism', when it aims to 'communicate something that can't quite be said plainly',  to 'convey the enchantment of the... experience'. The enchantment. Yes.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

About art

From The Orchard by Drusilla Modjeska:

" In 1948, Grace Cossington Smith painted one of her few self-portraits. It is not a great painting: the colours are muddy and lack her characteristic clarity and sharp manipulation of light. Its composition is unexceptional. Nevertheless, in thinking about Grace Cossington Smith in particular, and women artists in general, it is a painting I return to, and not because it is the only one I know in which she is wearing spectacles. The spectacles slightly emphasise the size of her eyes, from which I infer they were reading glasses: I have no evidence that she was a myope. The painting has, however, everything to do with sight: with seeing, with being seen, wanting to be seen; and with not being seen. And there is nothing straightforward about any of that if you are a woman and an artist.

The portrait is striking for the uncompromising plainness with which Grace Cossington Smith presents herself. Photos of her as a young woman show a pretty, smiling girl. In middle age, she paints herself stark and unadorned. A private face, a face without compromise: the face, it seems to me, of a woman who has renounced the vanity of being seen, and yet presents herself in her not-to-be-seen face. Simone de Beauvoir, at about the same time, in 1949, when 'The Second Sex' was published though not yet translated into English, was arguing in ways that were then quite startling, and now hardly commonplace, that the function of woman in our culture as man's other is intimately connected with speech, and with sight. By being all that man is not, woman reflects him back in glory: transcendent to her immanent, subject to her object. He speaks; she listens. he sees; she is seen. Like a mirror, it is she who reflects: it is she who is seen, and in being seen, sees. The face Grace Cossington Smith paints is the face of a woman who is not available for this service, yet sees, and demands to be seen, in the seeing of the non-seen. It is an uneasy challenge she makes to herself, and to her viewer.

The self-portrait was painted just before the first of the interiors that were to dominate Grace Cossington Smith's late work. It shares the same technique: those small blocks of colour in broad brush strokes which require us to move backwards and forwards to find our own focal range.

In those late interiors, in the last phase of her work, Grace Cossington Smith was painting out of a daily solitude, living alone in the family house where parents had did and from which siblings had departed. Do we see here the representation of a spinsterly existence: single beds, neat cupboards, empty hallways? Or the riches of solitude; empty rooms filled with possibilities? Doors opening onto hallways, windows opening onto verandahs and gardens, drawers and cupboards allowing us to glimpse their treasures? To my eye these interiors are by way of being self-portraits of a woman who has resolved the tension between her own ability to see and the seeing, or being seen, that is required of her: a woman who has fully withdrawn from the gaze of the world to discover not a defensive retreat, but the fullness of a solitude that society deems empty. They are the work of a woman with strong hands.

Take 'Interior with Wardrobe Mirror' (1955) which is held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In it a mirror of a wardrobe door swings open in the centre of the painting, where it invited our own reflection - and in that invitation we see the absence of the painter whose image should face directly into that shiny surface. Instead it reflects a door which opens across a verandah, across a lawn, to trees and a distant sky. Where the artist should stand, stands instead an invitation to the world, to all that is beyond. That is the fullness her solitude has produced.

Whereas the colours in the self-portrait had been murky - dull greens, muddy browns, flushed pinks - in the interior they are clear and luminous: the yellows of sunlight and ochre, every shade of red, vermilion to the tenderest pink, touches of green, pure blue, a surprising mauve. In the self-portrait seeing and being seen are held in a painful tension, a dark and punishing solitude that contains as much refusal as release; in the interior we see the fullness of a feminine space once so ambivalently inhabited, and connected, in Grace Cossington Smith's words to 'a golden thread running through time', and to 'the silent quality which is unconscious and belongs to all things created'. "

I've pages and pages in my journal of recent scrawled notes on a film I loved and an exhibition I didn't care for, and am having a hard time making anything coherent of them. Cogent and creative criticism must be one of the hardest things to formulate, especially when the brain is bloody tired. I don't want to leave these aside and never get around to putting any words to such strongly felt responses and when I was re-reading The Orchard by Drusilla Modjeska a fabulous and unusual book introduced to me last year by a review from Litlove, I found myself particularly drawn to this enlightening and deeply felt passage about a painter I was not familiar with, and wondering: why do I like this so much? Partly because I'm sympathetic to Modjeska's feminist analysis, of course. But that would not have been enough to make the paintings live in my mind's eye before I saw them, to send me running to the Internet in search of Frances Cossington Smith, or to make me turn the paragraphs over and over, as I did both on the page and in my memory.

So why is this so good? I think because it combines a deeply felt emotional empathy with a strong and informed intellectual argument and much patient detail, laid on carefully but lightly. Also because it ranges seamlessly between a close-up and a panoramic view, between concrete observation and imaginative speculation. I shall hold this in mind while having another go at writing my own reviews.

Monday 26 October 2009

Thursday 22 October 2009


The peerless Irène Jacob in "Three Colours - Red"

Some recent very cheap offers on DVDs led to my acquisition of a boxed set of Éric Rohmer films and all three of Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colours trilogy. So the other night I watched Red for the first time in many years (I couldn't find a trailer with English subtitles, but the dialogue is, I think, the least of it here).

So beautiful, deep, attentive. So detailed, but spacious. I felt as though I'd been given something: gorgeous, affecting, lasting images; deep perceptions; new, provocative thoughts. So different from the way films tend to make me feel these days - that my time, attention and emotions have been taken for an hour or two, leaving me depleted.

I love the way the film is full of patterns. The patterns of repeated views and intersecting trajectories in the city, evoking foreshadowing, repetition, familiarity, surprise meetings and converging paths in life.

I loved it the first time, more than a decade ago, and was surprised by how many scenes were still vivid in my mind and felt familiar when I saw them again. At the same time, I was able to appreciate the skill and poetry of the camerawork even more, having learned in the past few years of taking photographs a bit more about visual images and looking.

That sense of being enlarged, rather than depleted, by a work of art is something I want to think about more and be guided by in my consumption of books and films. I think it already guides my viewing of paintings and photographs.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

City sky

I like this photo, taken on the busy main road through the part of London where I live, because it symbolises in a small way what has made me come to terms somewhat with the din, filth, chaos and constant overstimulation of the big city, against which for so many years I held myself tense and rejecting - and the significant role that photography has played in that process.

If anyone had told me, down all those long years: "but, look, there is also so much in the city that's quirky, interesting and beautiful - many people just as sensitive as you find as much here to love as you find to hate", I'd have known what they said was true in theory, but it just wasn't what I perceived every day.

Nothing has changed, except my perception. Maybe age and maybe cultivating inner stillness, and almost certainly looking through the camera's lense, have finally brought me to see more - more details, different meanings, different perspectives from the obvious. Not all the time. There are still days when I feel overwhelmed and angered by the crowds and the mayhem. But enough to make a difference.

Small things, mostly, like this off-kilter detail above the busy street, are enough - if I really look at them - to stem the furious onslaught of ugliness, to break open the stiff rejection that only serves to strengthen and solidify that ugliness. Just a crack to see out of is sometimes enough to change the whole view.

Sunday 18 October 2009


Soft, bloody fallen petals cling to the damp gravel
like curling flakes of scraped-off skin. Somewhere nearby,
a flayed and thorny creature stumbles in the rain.

Thursday 15 October 2009


Recently I read a book about Sissinghurst, the country house much loved and admired for its garden, created in the early and mid twentieth century by Vita Sackville-West, the talented, outrageous, androgenous aristocrat who inspired Virginia Woolf's novel, Orlando. I've never been to Sissinghurst. Must go. What also riveted my mind, though, was mention of another thing Vita is famous for. She grew up at Knole, then the largest privately owned 'stately home' in England, set in vast acres of the Kentish Weald. Much gossiped about for her 'open' marriage to Harold Nicolson and both their many gay love affairs, her greatest love was probably Knole and the tragedy of her life -perhaps what made her such a questing, creative, promiscuous soul - that when her parents died the great house and park passed away from her to a male relative.

Whilst I don't find the thought of such wealth and privilege endearing, this thwarted love affair with an ancient and beautiful place does touch my heart and, after I read about it, long suppressed memories surfaced of leaving Yorkshire as a young woman and moving to London to get away from an impossibly difficult relationship. Painful and mutilating though it was, that was probably the right decision, but it also meant leaving the city and the grey-green post-industrial landscape that I'd come to love very much. I missed the place as much as the man.

There were return visits in the first years, but then there was a weekend, with my friend C, when we drove out to the countryside and walked along a canal. An Autumn day, low sunshine, broken mill buildings through the dense foliage dappling the water. A quality of light and colour utterly characteristic of that part of the country. It took me unawares. Beside the canal, I sobbed and sobbed and couldn't stop, had to be driven back to Leeds and put to bed with migraine. Shocked at myself and embarrassed, I got up and went home earlier than planned - and did not return to West Yorkshire for, oh, close on twenty years.

Since then other places have touched my heart, and I've gulped and blinked and not gone back, pushed them from my mind. There was a visit to France, especially, a few years ago. On the train back to Paris, still wrapped in a blanket of the cool, dreamy greens of that place, I fell into a deep cave of fear inside myself, terrified by so much wanting, such an impossible compulsion to embrace a landscape, cling to it, stay in it - a compulsion sure to be thwarted, and how would I bear that? No idea if I was sitting there normally on that train or unconscious on the floor for hours. I haven't been back to that high, clear, magical corner of the Jura, not even in my thoughts.

Thinking of Vita and Knole, I remembered these experiences. For many years, I think, this same emotional energy of passionate relationship with place fuelled my 'hate affair' with London. That's over now. We reconciled. Perhaps this is why I let myself remember. Not sure, really, whether it's a significant reclamation of something or just a bit of exaggerated, self-indulgent sentimentality.

Photo: Vita Sackville-West in her garden, 1958 - John Hedgecoe, National Portrait Gallery